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Remembering Cardinal Sim, the good shepherd of Brunei

A humble but inspiring churchman, the affable prelate had a gift for communications that invigorated a peripheral church

Remembering Cardinal Sim, the good shepherd of Brunei

Cardinal Cornelius Sim was known for his humility and ready smile. (Photo: Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei)

The recent death of Cardinal Cornelius Sim, bishop of Brunei, shocked Catholics across the world.

He died in Taiwan on May 29 at the age of 70 due to a cardiac arrest while undergoing treatment for cancer, barely seven months after Pope Francis made him a cardinal. He was buried at the Church of Our Lady of Assumption in Bandar Seri Begawan on June 15.

Cardinal Sim had an illustrious life that saw him emerge from a small church in the tiny Islamic monarchy to become a leading but humble churchman of the region and a member of the Vatican’s elite College of Cardinals.

His energetic drive and close-to people approach as a priest and a bishop invigorated the peripheral Brunei Church and the region. He has been hailed for his humility and smiling face that inspired many people.

The prelate was known as a media-savvy church leader, always readily available despite his busy schedule.

Until his death, Cardinal Sim was president of the Regional Episcopal Commission for Social Communications (RCSC) of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

The prelate looked straight into his eyes and with a subtle smile he said: 'Jump into the water like Peter!' 

His last communication with RCSC members on a WhatsApp chat group was on May 16, World Communications Day (WCD).

“Dear RCSC members, thanks for all the initiatives around WCD 2021. My general health has also not been great all through the last few months. My cancer has spread and my liver is quite swollen, causing me tiredness and lethargy ++++.”

Following his death, RCSC members and church groups paid tribute to the great shepherd.

Father Thomas Madanan from the Church of the Blessed Sacrament Labuan in Malaysia recalled how he had a memorable encounter with Cardinal Sim when he was a seminarian.

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In 2002, he was in seminary formation at St. Peter’s College in Sarawak state of Malaysia and he requested an extension of two years for priestly discernment in a parish. Despite the extension nearing its end, he remained undecided and thought about asking for another year of extension.

When he met with the then Bishop Sim, he explained that one of his greatest concerns was academic limitations that “may be more of a liability than an asset to the parish.”

The prelate looked straight into his eyes and with a subtle smile he said: “Jump into the water like Peter!” 

“But from the look of his endearing and assuring eyes, I sensed that it was as if the Lord Jesus himself was saying that to me. The rest is history,” Father Madanan recalled.

“His Eminence was a man of great faith in the Lord Jesus, the good shepherd who had encouraged and inspired me in many ways. Indeed we, members of the RCSC, are truly blessed to have served with Cardinal Sim as he always stressed the spirit of teamwork: 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.'" (John 6:68)

He was truly a good friend of the media, having full understanding of our need as journalists

Joseph Leong Sai Ho, head of the Social Communications Commission of the Archdiocese of Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, hailed Cardinal Sim as a good friend of the media.

“As a Catholic writer, I have had the opportunity to meet and interview Bishop Cornelius on many occasions. He was truly a good friend of the media, having full understanding of our need as journalists. Bishop Cornelius was very savvy with social media and always made it a point to respond to our requests for his opinion on current events and issues related to the Catholic Church in this region,” Leong said.

“No matter how busy he was, he never failed to find time for the media. From my personal experience, the views he expressed reflected his wisdom and intellect. His opinions depict the deep knowledge and understanding of the topics under discussion.”

Leong said Cardinal Sim had a very creative mind and expressed thoughts from "outside the box.”

“This quality is a delight to any journalist, for the views he offered each time became solid substance for a good news story,” he said.

Leong noted that what Cardinal Sim said truly reflected the depth of his thoughts and wisdom.

During an online annual general meeting with Catholic communicators across the region, Cardinal Sim advised that during a time of uncertainty like the Covid-19 pandemic, they should not wait for certainty but to enter into a moment of creativity and search for new opportunities.

“It is during these challenging times, while many simply wait around to see familiar fixed points re-emerge, that we are called to be resourceful, imaginative and to identify new directions,” he said.

It’s also a time to reflect and to pray fervently, examine the state of our faith, and let the energy of the Spirit lead us out into a new day

Despite the state of fear that forced people to stay indoors for safety, Cardinal Sim reminded them. that instead of shuttering doors, they should make sure that as Christians they do not shut Jesus Christ out of their homes and hearts.

“It’s also a time to reflect and to pray fervently, examine the state of our faith, and let the energy of the Spirit lead us out into a new day,” he added.

The Catholic Church in this region has truly lost the service and leadership of a good shepherd filled with the Spirit of God and wisdom, Leong noted.

Majella Gomes, a member of SIGNIS Malaysia, said Cardinal Sim was great communicator who raised the bar high with his tremendous efforts.

“As the head of the RCSC for Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, Cardinal Sim conscientiously met with all its members every year and kept track of developments. Where there were none, he never failed to be supportive and encouraging; where there had been progress in program implementation, he was always the first to cheer,” Gomes recalled.

“More than anything else, he understood the complexities of communication, and never expected others to do what he was not capable of doing himself. He set the bar high nevertheless because he was very capable indeed. What set him apart was how he understood that at its core communication works only when it touches people and makes a difference in their lives.”

It was such a beautiful moment in my life when he put his hand on my shoulder and we walked while I made my confession

Agnes Moniu from the Catholic Nurses' Guild of Malaysia paid tribute to Cardinal Sim, who had a close relationship with Catholic heath workers when he was in charge of pastoral health care under the Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei from 2012 to 2018.

She recalled she met Cardinal Sim on various occasions including retreats and annual meetings and was struck by his amazing greatness and simplicity.

In 2015, on the sidelines of a retreat in Sibu, she approached him for confession. The prelate asked her to take a walk with him instead of going into the retreat hall.

“It was such a beautiful moment in my life when he put his hand on my shoulder and we walked while I made my confession,” she said.

“For him, ‘bishop’ was just a title and he always showed humility in treating his community, and I felt as if he was my friend and father. I will always remember his way of serving, so down to earth and full of wisdom and love,” she added.

Sister Rosalie L. Lojiu from the Daughters of St. Paul congregation said the sisters will always remember the wonderful church leader.

“Cardinal Sim was a good friend to many of our sisters, especially those who are directly involved in the pastoral work of the media across the circumscriptions of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore,” the nun said.

“His good examples in the pastoral work of social communications will never be forgotten. These good examples will shine and bear fruits in time and space under the loving good shepherd, Jesus the divine master and shepherd of souls.” 

This is an abridged version of an article originally published by Today’s Catholic, the official publication of Kuching Archdiocese in Malaysia.

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